Joseph Cinque (Sengbe Pieh) was a Sierra Leonean slave who led an uprising on the Spanish slave ship, La Amistad. Later Pieh and the other slaves involved in the revolt were put on trial for the death of two officers on the ship. The case was famously known as United States v. The Amistad.
Sengbe Pieh, or “Joseph Cinque,” was the son of a village chief in the West African village of Mani. He was captured by African tribesmen because of an overdue debt, and taken to a slave factory and sold to a Spanish slave trader. He was then resold, sent to Havana, Cuba, and sold to Pedro Ruiz and put on board the Cuban slave ship “Amistad”.
The Amistad left Havana on June 27, 1839, bound for Puerto Principe, Cuba, carrying 49 African men and four children. The Africans had been abducted from Sierra Leone by slave traders in February 1839, an act that “violated all of the treaties then in existence,” according to the National Archives.
The ship was manned by Capt. Ramon Ferrer, two Spanish crewmen, a creole slave, a mulatto slave, and the slaves’ Spanish owners, Jose Ruiz and Pedro Montez. Their journey was supposed to take only two or three days, but the ship was slowed by storms.
The Spaniards arranged to transport the captives on the coastal schooner Amistad, with the intention of selling them as slaves at ports along the coast in Cuba for work at sugar plantations. On June 30, Led by Sengbe Pieh, later known as “Joseph Cinque,” the slaves resolved to take over the ship.
Cinque set the rebellion in motion by unlocking his own shackles using a loose nail and setting the other slaves free. The men discovered sugarcane knives and then killed the captain and the cook of the ship; two slaves also died, and two sailors escaped.
Joseph cinque took Ruiz and Montez, the merchants who had purchased them, as prisoners and demanded that they direct the ship back to Sierra Leone. Montez obeyed the slaves by sailing east during the day, but secretly steered northwest at night.
Two months later, the ship arrived in Long Island, New York. Members of the USS Washington embarked the ship. When Ruiz and Montez gave their version of events, the slaves were charged with mutiny and taken to New Haven, Connecticut where they would stand trial.
During the trial, Cinqué served as the slave’s informal representative. Montez and Ruiz claimed that Cinqué and the rest were already slaves when they were sold in Cuba.
Prosecutors argued that, as slaves, the mutineers were subject to the laws governing conduct between slaves and their masters. But trial testimony determined that while slavery was legal in Cuba, importation of slaves from Africa was not. Therefore, the judge ruled, rather than being merchandise, the Africans were victims of kidnapping and had the right to escape their captors in any way they could.
After the case was ruled in favor of the Africans in the district and circuit courts, the case was appealed by the Spanish parties, including its government, to the Supreme Court of the United States.
In March 1841, the Supreme Court found that the group revolted after being illegally enslaved. The court ordered that the slaves be freed.
Cinque and the survivors won the case, but still needed the necessary funds to make the trip back to their home. In a letter, Cinque, who lived in Connecticut with the others, demanded they all be returned to Sierra Leone, which was part of a fund-raising effort on his behalf:
They say we are like dogs without any home. But if you will send us home you will see whether we be dogs or not. We want to see no more snow. We no say this place no good, but we afraid of cold. Cold catch us all the time…We want to go very soon, and go to no place but Sierra Leone.
Cinque, the 34 survivors, interpreter James Covey, and five missionaries began the trip back to Sierra Leone on November 25, 1841. Along the way, three survivors passed away and it was alleged Cinque returned home to his ravaged village. Some accounts say he worked as a missionary, while others claim Cinqué and the other slaves started working in the slave trade after they returned to Sierra Leone, due to economic hardship.
Cinqué died in 1879.
Pieh’s image is displayed on Sierra Leone’s 5000 leone banknote. He is also venerated in a statue outside of the city hall in New Haven and a golden sculpture located outside the Old State House in Hartford, Connecticut.